Why Was April 22 Chosen For Earth Day?

As we all know, Earth Day — a time to refocus our energy on the environment — is April 22 each year. But as we also all know, every day really ought to be Earth Day. Planet Earth, after all, is where we all live. So, what is it about that date on the calendar that made early Earth Day organizers choose it for their event? The answer tells the story of how Earth Day began, but also reveals the generation for which environmental activism was and continues to be a priority, according to History.

Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was an early environmental activist who spearheaded the very first Earth Day celebration in 1970. The '60s were a time of great social and political upheaval, particularly surrounding the war in Vietnam. Inspired by this, Nelson — as well as Bay Area climate activist John McConnell, among others — sought to highlight with Earth Day what they saw as an impending climate catastrophe. With calendars before them, Nelson and his team looked to an already established holiday in some states.

Arbor Day is also in April

Although Arbor Day was not a national holiday until 1970, the same year that Earth Day began, it was first established in Nebraska in 1872 by Julius Sterling Morton, first on April 10 and then April 22 for better weather and to honor Morton's birthday after he died (via History). When the Great Plains were first being farmed, there was a significant dearth of trees. Morton suggested a "tree planting holiday" to take place each year to remedy that (per Arbor Day Foundation). It's estimated that on the first Arbor Day, 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska. From there Arbor Day spread, now celebrated in all 50 states, usually on the last Friday of April. Arbor Day's themes of ecological stewardship led Nelson and his colleagues to consider April 22 a perfect fit for their first Earth Day celebration, according to History.

From there, a team was assembled by Nelson (pictured), McConnell, and colleagues. The very notion of Earth Day was inspired by the student-led protests against the Vietnam War on American college campuses. It was from these same ranks that early Earth Day staff were largely drawn. So, too, did early Earth Day organizers hope that the college students would comprise the majority of Earth Day event attendees. To help make sure that happened, Nelson and others wanted the date that Earth Day took place to be as convenient for that demographic as possible.

April 22 is also often spring break

Adding further appeal to April 22 is that in most parts of the country, college students would be finished with finals and on spring break, helping make it as easy as possible for them to participate in or to help plan Earth Day events, as EarthSky explains. With that in mind, the date was set, and the very first Earth Day celebrations took place all over the country in several major American cities. Many celebrities, including Paul Newman, Ali McGraw, and Pete Seeger, were also involved, according to History.

There was one other potential date considered by early Earth Day organizers, particularly McConnell: spring equinox, March 20, which would also make sense and have its own appeal. But since college students would still largely be in class on that date, April 22 was chosen in 1970, and Earth Day has been celebrated all over the world on that date ever since then (per Mental Floss). The remarkable thing about the very first Earth Day is that it practically organized itself, Nelson later said (via History).